Immanuel Kant wrote in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, “Act as though the maxim of your action were to become, through your will, a universal law of nature.”
Kant, like several other enlightenment thinkers, believed that there were certain principles that could be arrived at apriori (prior to experience, theoretically), that were independent of the subjectivity that experience brings to our worldview. To Kant, reason was a tool that all human beings possessed, which could lead them to an unquestionable, universally acceptable moral code. To put it crudely, Kant believed that by exercising rationality, we could all come to the same conclusions as to what is good and right (what ought to be a “universal law of nature”), and what isn’t.
Philosophy, over time, has moved on to recognize subjectivity, embracing experience and questioning long held notions of “truth.” Yet in practice, rationalizing complex situations in abstraction seems to be the predominant method of decision making, even today.
In my two semesters at the MDP program, morals, ideals and their relationship to development work have been discussed extensively. We seem to largely agree that one of the biggest mistakes that development practitioners seem to make, time and again, is determining in a vacuum what communities want and need, without any real input from the community or a real understanding of its particularities. Who are we to impose our values on people whose lives we are so removed from that we cannot hope to understand their perspective from afar? We live our academic lives in a world of P Values and regressions, not always realizing that at the core of everything we do is a set of firmly held ideals that we are usually unwilling to compromise; ideals that may be different from those of the communities with whom we hope to work.
It’s important to understand that these ideals are constructed and are not universally accepted. They are what we have come to possess as the result of the kind of education we received and the environment in which we grew up. One may argue that some things (scientific facts, for example) are objective truths, and that with the “right” kind of education and exposure to the “right” kind of information, all human beings will recognize them to be true. However, the question that remains is: are we justified in imposing our values and ideals (irrespective of their validity) on communities that function with a different set of values and ideals?
I am of the opinion that imposition is almost never justified; and even if it is justifiable, never fruitful. As development practitioners, it is important for us to relinquish the goal of ensuring that communities live a life deemed suitable by our standards, and instead move into a paradigm where our job is to ensure that all members of the communities we work with are empowered to make their own decisions about how to live their life. We are responsible for building the capabilities of community members and providing them with a fair opportunity to achieve whatever it is they might want to. If there are internal hierarchies within communities, or systems that we perceive to be unfair, we cannot hope to rectify them by assuming some sort of authority over community members and dictating what they must do. The only way to bring about change effectively is to bring about change from within, rather than imposing it from the outside.
For this reason, the definition given to development by Amartya Sen appeals to me greatly. Sen defines development as the expansion of the freedoms and capabilities for human beings. Development, by this definition, requires individuals to be given the access, opportunity and ability to aspire to and achieve the things they value.
There is a need to move away from measuring development by income, assets or even happiness, and towards measuring it by the extent of empowerment and the expansion of capabilities and opportunities. I expect that actualizing this change is one of the biggest professional challenges we will face in the coming years.